Sitting Still: 3 Techniques to Improve Your Zen (but Mostly Your Health)
My brown, semi-shag carpet gently hugs my feet and my legs as I sit down and prepare to (dun, dun, duuun) meditate. I’m supposed to only focus on my breathing, so they say. I start my timer, and go through a couple repetitions of inhale and exhale. Who is “they,” anyway? This is so easy, why do people complain about meditation being hard? All that is required is a steel-type focus. It’s like my anatomy class in college, all I needed to do there was focus and I aced that class. That professor was such a jerk. I catch myself; I have lost the focus of my rhythmic breathing, okay, time to buckle down and really just clear my mind. Inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale. Shoot, I didn’t respond to that email from my boss last night, where is my phone? Oh, right, it’s serving as my timer. I catch myself again, sending a little note to my brain asking it to shut up. Refocus. Inhale, exhale. I bet my ex meditates perfectly everyday and doesn’t have drifting thoughts of me like I do of them. I wonder how they’re doing. I wonder if they ever got their animal psychic gig off the ground. That was always such a silly concept! I’m really happy I didn’t get caught up in that mess! I catch myself, again. My ten minute timer rings a peaceful and full gong, congratulating me on completing a “successful” meditation. I scoff in resentment. I stand up off of my floor that, somehow, I am now annoyed with because I couldn’t focus. What is wrong with me? My mind is like a fidgeting child who cannot sit still. Oh, well. I grab my cup of joe, head out the door, and dive into the world of distractions awaiting my restless and ungrounded mind.
Does the scenario above sound too familiar? It does for me too because, well, it was literally how my morning meditation went today. Meditation has always been a staple part of my (attempts at getting into a healthy) morning routine. I have always been someone who flourishes in routine. I’m at my best and my most joyful when I’m meal prepping nutritious grub, going to the gym (or at least being active in some capacity), journaling, getting eight hours of sleep, doing my physical therapy, and meditating every day. I mean it! Every. Single. Day.
Routine is a staple for being healthy and successful, whatever success looks like for you. One study published earlier this year concluded that disruptions in our circadian rhythm are associated with major mental health issues, such as major depressive mood disorders, and can contribute largely to people developing them later in life. Consequently, having a stable routine that allows our circadian rhythm to thrive helps us combat these issues (Lyall et al., 2018). In case anyone is still wondering if their physical health suffers because of poor mental health, or visa versa, it can! Subsequently, everyone (yes, even you, Steel Trap Bob) are at risk of deteriorating mental health because of a lack of intentional routines and healthy, self-maintaining habits.
So, how the heck do you even meditate? Wait, let’s shift that first question: why the heck should you even meditate? Studies conducted on the physical aspects of meditation have seen positive benefits for pregnant women, women who are giving birth, those diagnosed with PTSD, those diagnosed with a terminal illness, and a plethora of other physical (and obviously mental) illnesses. One of the most amazing studies I found while doing my research was published by the Journal of the American Heart Association in 2017. This study concluded that, “meditation can have long‐standing effects on the brain, which provide some biological plausibility for beneficial consequences on the physiological basal state and on cardiovascular risk. Studies of the effects of meditation on cardiovascular risk have included those investigating physiological response to stress, smoking cessation, blood pressure reduction, insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome, endothelial function, inducible myocardial ischemia, and primary and secondary prevention of cardiovascular disease (Levine et al., 2017).” The bottom line here: meditation is actually physically good for your body, not just your mind- although that should be enough of an incentive for incorporating meditation into your daily routine.
Now to the how. I’ve been consistently meditating for about two years now- sometimes the session is successful and I feel totally grounded and whole, and sometimes it resembles the opening scenario to this blog post. When I’m not being as diligent as I should be, my meditation sessions are scrambled and feel like a waste of time; I’ve found that, just like any muscle, I have to train my brain to stay quiet. A common misconception about meditation is that the goal is to completely eradicate any thought that could or will float into your brain. That is not the goal, and may explain why your meditation sessions feel like a total flop if it is. The goal of mediation is to strengthen your mental ability to focus and to let go as negative thoughts, stressful events, or anything else that enters your life that doesn’t serve you.
Below are three key techniques that help to keep me focused so I can get the most out of my ten minute meditations:
CONSISTENCY IS KEY
The first technique is to put aside time for meditation and keep it consistent. Obviously life is messy, and we can’t always keep our routines perfect, but that’s kind of the point of routines, to do them consistently to reap maximum benefit. I meditate first thing in the morning because it is the time I am the most emotionally vulnerable, overwhelmed, and unmotivated. It allows me to wake up and greet the day with mindfulness and gratitude.
VISUALIZE YOUR THOUGHTS
The second technique focuses on visualizations to help you let go of thoughts that come in and out of your mind. I learned this technique from a psychologist, and it’s probably the saving grace to my meditations. Picture you’re walking along a busy highway. Let the cars whizzing by you represent your thoughts. As you become swept up in a particular thought, visualize yourself stepping into one of those cars. Whenever you’re ready to let that thought go, literally picture yourself stepping outside of the car and back onto the highway. Repeat this for every thought that comes into your mind throughout your meditation. I like this one so much because it puts you in control of your thoughts, not the other way around.
The third technique I like the most when it is coupled with the latter. It is picturing yourself in your safe place, or simply in a beautiful, peaceful spot. For example, I picture myself walking on the highway right next to Big Sur in California. The ocean is glistening as the setting sun reaches to kiss the horizon. The waves dance towards the shore as an act of love for the sand on the beach. The sound of the crashing waves provide a grounding stability that is insurmountable. In this place, I am whole, mesmerized, and full of bliss; I want nothing to distract me from this place and time full of love and gratitude. As I am enchanted by the scenery, a car (aka a disruptive thought) picks me up on the side of the highway. I can still enjoy the view from the vehicle, but the driver’s music is too loud, the leather of the seat is too sticky, and I’m moving too fast to embrace my blissful moment. I ask the driver to stop, intentionally step out of the car (aka chose to let the thought pass), and step back into this moment of joyful observation. Just writing about this technique makes me want to step away from the computer and into a quiet room to meditate. There truly is nothing better than the serenity this technique creates.
Meditation is for everyone. No matter your sex, gender, age, race, creed, religion, socioeconomic status, or health, meditation can and will improve your life. Remember, no one is perfect. Cliché, I know, but really try to embrace this fact: nobody is perfect. Your meditation practice is just that, a practice. Some days it will feel pointless, other days it will feel like the gift it really is. Marvel in the small victories that these three techniques will bring you. Enjoy the journey. Just breathe!
Personally, I use the app "Insight Timer" to do all of my meditating. I like this app because it has a timer with customizable settings for the more experienced meditator, or guided meditations for those who are just beginning. I usually find guided meditations very helpful when I am trying to fall asleep. "Calm" is another popular meditation app. They have adult bedtime stories that also serve as helpful guided meditations for sleep.
ProActive Physical Therapy's YouTube channel also features a playlist of our favorite guided meditations. Some are for sleep, some are for grounding, and some are for healing emotional wounds, but all of them are meditations that I use personally. Click here to hop over to that playlist!
Levine, G. N., Lange, R. A., Bairey‐Merz, C. N., Davidson, R. J., Jamerson, K., Mehta, P. K., ... & Shah, T. (2017). Meditation and cardiovascular risk reduction: a scientific statement from the American Heart Association. Journal of the American Heart Association, 6(10), e002218.
Lyall, L. M., Wyse, C. A., Graham, N., Ferguson, A., Lyall, D. M., Cullen, B., ... & Strawbridge, R. J. (2018). Association of disrupted circadian rhythmicity with mood disorders, subjective wellbeing, and cognitive function: a cross-sectional study of 91 105 participants from the UK Biobank. The Lancet Psychiatry, 5(6), 507-514.